Katherine Mendelsohn on translating Prodiges® to How to be a Modern Marvel®
I have never met Mariette Navarro. I’m translating her recent playProdiges® from French into English. How to be a Modern Marvel® (as its title eventually turns out), will be playing at the Institut Francais d’Ecosse as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer. After touring the original production across France, the wonderful French cast and director have chosen to bring it here and perform in English.
So the company has asked me to turn this play from its emerging, pacy French original into an equally layered & pacy English, and to realise it into a different language, without losing the original’s bittersweet spark.
To do that, Mariette and I want to talk. Be in the same room.
But when Mariette’s at home, she’s in Lyon. While I’m here in Edinburgh. This year she’s been on her own artistic ‘tour de France’ making a variety of projects with theatres, festivals, academies, and radio. If I’d wanted to, I could’ve completed the UK translation of her play here, alone – using my French language skills, and trusting my professional sense of theatrical rhythm, fun and possibilities. It’s what many stage translators have to do. Maybe with international phone conversations or emails to the author, if they’re alive. But forget even that if your writer’s a long-gone Ibsen, Chekhov or Moliere. No corresponding with those folk. They tend to be pretty quiet in response to calls and goodness knows who you’d get if you emailed email@example.com .
But if your writer’s alive, you want to talk. ‘Face to face’. And though we’ve never met, that’s exactly what we’ve done.
The internet is praised and heralded – and derided and blamed. We’ve seen its seminal role in recent twenty-first century revolutions. Invaluable and cataclysmic. A pulsating life-force of connections… and of anonymity and masks.
It’s transforming our sharing and communication. Fast.
For artists, too. Connections across borders. If meeting up in the same place is impossible, for whatever political or practical reasons, we can manage it now …
Computer video-calls (Skype or Facetime to name a couple) allow a writer and their translator to sit down together in a new kind of ‘room’. Not coldly. With warmth, passion and personality. You even know what each other drinks first thing in the morning “Oh, I’ve got to have a coffee, too. How’s yours?”
Our video-calls can be plentiful and cost nothing: £0=€0 is a decent exchange rate. Playwrights are rarely wealthy. Nor translators. This is a liberation.
Being able to see each other allows both of us a world of communication between the words. As well as the words themselves.
More than in words. I can see the playwright’s expression momentarily light up (or cloud) as I speak a thought. And she can see mine as she explains how a particular line (that never made perfect sense in the original language) came about because of a particular moment or individual along the way. Now it must be made to feel part of the whole play’s breath in its next language.
A detailed ‘mot-a-mot’ through the play over the days – a joyous examination of choices and possibilities. Hearing lines spoken. And the fun of discovering idioms in each other’s language – not clunky ‘literal’ translations of meaning-only, but images that the other country uses without thinking twice. Sacre bleu, that’s the dog’s bollocks, eh?
Sometimes exactly the same, sometimes brilliant new images to one or other of us.
We can laugh together, find joy in rhythms and sounds and words in both languages, and plumb the bittersweetness of How to be a Modern Marvel®’s world. It’s silly until suddenly you’re leaning over a terrifying abyss… as one of the French critics said of Mariette’s original, “this play gives me vertigo”.
> The Cie du Veilleur performs How to be a Modern Marvel® at the Institut français from 2 to 26 August. More information here